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Jerry Hicks vote in UNITE: A victory for the grassroots!

Jerry Hicks campaign in the recent election for General Secretary in Unite The Union has witnessed a significant step forward for the Grass Roots Left (GRL). In the face of determined and unprincipled opposition by an array of conservative political groups in alliance with the union bureaucracy. The GRL advanced from a vote of just over 53,000 in the last leadership election to almost 80,000 this time around. It was an uneven fight with the bureaucracy throwing its vast resources behind McCluskey. Around a million leaflets were produced and about half a million members were written to, while hundreds of paid officials campaigned against the rank and file candidate, using “innuendo, lies and scaremongering” to win support. 

The final tally of 144,000 for McCluskey and 80,000 for Jerry Hicks does not fully convey the significance of the vote. While the bureaucracy had the support of the vast union machinery and the nominations of hundreds of branches representing 567,501 members, the Grass Roots campaign had nominations from 120 branches representing 86,208 members. Gaining these 120 nominations, a small victory in itself, was not a matter of allowing the cumbersome bureaucratic machine with all its place seekers and head nodders do their work in barely quorate meeting halls, it was a matter of rank and file workers going out and inspiring other rank and file workers to get involved in their union, many for the first time. Following the election, the Grass Roots Left is firmly established as the left in Unite and is now organising post election meetings to consider the next step in their campaign. 

What does the victory represent politically? McCluskey called a snap election 3 years early to cement his control of the union. The reason for this is that the British trade union bureaucracy have only one strategy – the election of a Labour government. Given that the current austerity plans were drawn up by Labour and implemented by the coalition and that a new labour government would continue the austerity, he had strong reason for putting himself beyond the reach of members. 

The immediate outcome of the election was that McCluskey blustered at Miliband, warning him to stay away from alliances with Blairism! He was immediately put down by labour for his pains. Such tensions can only grow, with the left bureaucracy trying to reassure their members and Labour reassuring big business. 

Even more significant is the fact that McCluskey is a member of the broad left in the trade unions and was supported by the majority of socialist groups. (The SWP supported Hicks – leading to disgraceful claims by the bureaucracy that he was “the friend of rapists”). 

The “opposition” to austerity across Europe has been led by left reformist parties claiming to have a kinder austerity in their back pockets. By and large the workers have remained loyal to those parties, butchering them when they enter government and enforce the austerity, but swinging to the many new reformist parties that form in their wake rather than moving to the left or mobilising independently. The majority of socialist groups have clung to the reformists; trying to win electoral support themselves and putting forward left versions of the social democratic programme on the grounds that there is no alternative. 

The policies of the grassroots left are still unfinished; Union democracy, no support for Labour as a party, repudiation of the bank bailout, workers mobilisations to break the austerity. What they have demonstrated is that there is an alternative, that workers are prepared to mobilise around it and vote in their tens of thousands. 

It is a wakeup call to socialists across Europe. The lessons for the Irish left are self-evident. 

There are great lessons in this experience for trade unionists in Ireland where the sell out by the union leadership is even more blatant. Already there is the beginnings of a rank and file opposition emerging in SIPTU and rumblings in other unions. These emergent oppositions must organise independently across all unions and unite in action to defend jobs and services and, in direct opposition to David Begg and his cronies, to fight household and water charges and to openly and determinedly expose and oppose the entire discredited trade union and ICTU bureaucracy.


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